New York Estate Assets in the Age of Facebook
The New York Estate Settlement process is often an overwhelming challenge to family members and friends who are appointed as Executors or Administrators of a decedent's estate. Putting aside the sometimes complex task of Probating a Will or seeking Letters of Administration in an Intestate Estate, the newly appointed fiduciary is faced with the duties of marshaling or collecting assets, paying debts and expenses and filing estate and income taxes related to the decedent.
New York Estate Lawyers who represent fiduciaries assist their client with many of these items. However, dealing with assets, debts, claims and taxes, particularly where a decedent's personal affairs were kept private during a decedent's lifetime, requires time consuming research and attention to the details provided in the decedent's records and papers.
In the Facebook and Web centered age, investigating a person's lifetime affairs is even more difficult due to on-line banking, social media contacts, and web-based information in the "cloud", all of which is accessed by a plethora of passwords and user ID's. Thus, rummaging through a decedent's paper bank and brokerage statements and incoming mail may not provide a full insight into his affairs which may, in fact, be paperless. Just accessing an e-mail account may be impossible.
In this regard, the authority of an Executor or Administrator may be thwarted by privacy rules and restrictions that are imposed on the users of these web/social media accounts. For example, the state of Virginia is now considering legislation that would allow the state's probate laws to apply to so-called "digital assets". As reported by Tracy Sears in a post on January 9, 2013 in wtvr.com, this legislation was prompted after the suicide death of a 15 year-old high school student. When the student's parents attempted to access his Facebook account to try and discover reasons for his untimely death, Facebook refused the family access due to its privacy policies. Unfortunately, there was no state or federal law that gave an estate a right to override these company policies.
It appears that New Hampshire is also considering this type of legislation that would allow an Executor to have control over a decedent's social media accounts.
An estate fiduciary is entrusted with the obligation of Administrating an Estate and providing finality to a decedent's affairs so that the estate beneficiaries can ultimately receive their share of estate assets. It is, indeed, ironic that the web/social media avenues that can seemingly provide efficiency and productivity to a person during life are now an impediment to the settlement of that person's affairs after death.
Providing the Estate Planning to avoid these issues of non-access to account information is always a good practice. Along with estate planning papers such as a Last Will, Health Care Proxy, Living Will, and Power of Attorney, a person should keep a clear and up-to-date record of user ID and password information. A trusted family member or friend should know where to locate this valuable information. Additionally, there has been a new trend towards preparing a "Digital Will". As reported in an article by Claire Connelly at foxnews.com on August 30, 2012 entitled "Your digital Will: How to share your data after death", specialized on-line sites allow you to store your user information and designate the beneficiaries who are to receive this information after your death.
New York Probate Attorney Jules M. Haas has helped many clients over the past 30 years resolve issues relating to estate planning, estate accounting and estate settlement in Manhattan and Queens and throughout New York. If you or someone you know has any questions regarding these matters, please contact me at (212) 355-2575 for an initial consultation.